Monday, August 15, 2011

Basque People: kicking imperialist ass since at least 1233 years ago

Monumento batalla de Roncesvalles
Battle of Roncevaux monument
Like every year I like to commemorate August the 15th, the day our ancestors defeated the largest army in their time, being the only major defeat suffered by Emperor Charles of the Franks, known to history as Charlemagne.

The conflict happened after the Carolingians had converged with the Ummayads in order to destroy which was surely the most important Basque state ever: the Duchy of Vasconia. After capturing the Visigothic kingdom, the Muslim armies managed to take Pamplona and cross the Pyrenees northwards, eventually cornering the Vasco-Aquitanian forces, who had to ask for help to the conspirator Steward of the Frankish Kingdom, Charles Martel. The joint forces of both realms defeated the Ummayad forces at Tours or Poitiers but this was then used by Charles to weaken the Vasco-Aquitanian Duchy and force it again to submission and eventually dismembering.

Medieval Pyrenean warrior (almogavar)
Martel's son, Charlemagne, never before defeated in battle, was offered the city of Zaragoza by a traitor governor. In order to consolidate its capture, Charles marched south with all the Frankish army, crossing Basque territory, but found that the plot had been discovered and the governor deposed. While retreating, Charles committed his lifetime's error: he destroyed the walls of Pamplona, maybe fearing that they could serve as a core for Basque rebellion or who knows. That was the stroke that broke the camel's back and when the army went through the mountains somewhere near Roncevaux (probably further East, near Urkuilu mountain, where there is an ideal pass for an ambush that the old "Roman" road crossed), the rearguard of that huge army, made up by some of the most important noblemen of the Franks, notably Charles' brother in law and Marquis of Brittany, Roland, were ambushed and exterminated.

The victors were surely lightly armed militiamen, much as Roman era irregulars or later almogavars (from Arabic al-mughawwar: brawler or raider), who would plunder Constantinople and other cities signaling, together with Welsh logbowmen, the end of the medieval heavy knight. Per the descriptions we have of the fighting methods of the almogavars, these were usually mounted infantry with high mobility but who fought against knights by first killing their horses, forcing them to fight on foot, where the heavy armor was only a burden. They were so feared that, later in Greece, full armies run away when they showed up.

Basque forests: warm refuge for friends, eerie trap for foes
Probably these same tactics were used at Roncevaux. Speculating: volley of arrows or other projectile is followed by direct attack, not against the knights but their horses; then the knights were slaughtered, the baggage plundered and the attackers vanished in the nearby forests. When Charlemagne went back he could only pick up corpses.

It'd be just a historical anecdote but considering that the struggle against the post-Roman invaders continues even today, it is actually a reminder of a long ongoing fight for freedom. It should be our national day.

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